Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, 419 pp., $27.95.
This book begins with a quotation from Spinoza—“I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them”—and the author does his best to do likewise. Jonathan Haidt, who teaches at New York University after many years at the University of Virginia, has tried to figure out how morality really works, not how it should work. To that end, he leads the reader on a fascinating tour of the roles of reason and emotion, the purpose of religion, why groups are important, how liberals differ from conservatives, and why well-meaning people so often disagree.
Prof. Haidt had to suppress his instinctive liberalism in order to follow where the evidence leads, and did so with considerable bravery: How many social scientists would argue that religion is important and that we build atheist societies at our peril? Or that liberalism is based on a dangerously narrow moral foundation? This book is like another one recently reviewed here, Pathological Altruism, in that it does not directly address the race question, but some of the light it sheds shines our way.
A critique of pure reason
One of Prof. Haidt’s most interesting arguments is about the nature of moral reasoning:
If you think moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.
Often, the mental exercises we think are truth-seeking are really excuse-making.
Ever since Plato, Western thinkers have argued that reason can dominate the emotions and lead to virtue. Almost all the greatest mischief makers—Karl Marx, Franz Boas, Margaret Meade, Gunnar Myrdal, Jonathan Kozol, Steven Jay Gould, and virtually every social science department in America—have gone farther and claimed there is no such thing as human nature, so we can reason our way to utopia. As Prof. Haidt notes, radical reformers have to believe the mind is a blank slate if they are to write their fantasies on it.
Science now recognizes that the mind is far from blank. We are strongly motivated by fear, disgust, anger, affection, sympathy, and loyalty in ways that have been sharply defined by evolution. Reason is a newcomer:
Animal brains are constantly appraising the environment and making instant decisions about how to get more of the good things out there and less of the bad. Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years, so they’re very good at what they do . . . . When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the last million years, the brain did not rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and inexperienced charioteer.
Prof. Haidt develops this idea further with an analogy of an elephant and its rider—“thinking is the rider, affect is the elephant”—but the rider serves the elephant and only occasionally tells it where to go. The rider has the ability to consider options and think about the future so he is useful to the elephant, but the elephant—like other animals—mostly runs on instinct. The rider is also “skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.”
The emotional processing that drives the elephant is intuitive. For example, people draw conclusions about the attractiveness and competence of someone after seeing his picture for a tenth of a second. Our instincts are immediate—the elephant begins to lean one way or the other—and the rider cobbles together moral justifications only afterwards.
One of the most important functions of the rider is to make the elephant look good: “Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm.” The social aspect of moral reasoning is crucial. If we were solitary animals, we would not need moral reasoning; simply wanting to do something would be reason enough for doing it. The real purpose of morality is to justify our own actions to others and to set up rules to compel them to act as we say they should. Moral reasoning is not a means to objective truth but is, as Prof. Haidt explains, “part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people.”
Prof. Haidt says that the conscious mind is a spin artist: “We are indeed selfish hypocrites, so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.” Being (or just appearing to be) right is a major human goal: “An obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.” We care more about our reputations and having our own way than we do about the facts: “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
What Prof. Haidt is saying nicely sums up people with whom we disagree, doesn’t it? But surely, it doesn’t apply to us or our friends! There may be a handful of people who can judge their own motives perfectly, whose opinions are never swayed by personal interests, who unhesitatingly tell the truth even if damages them. Chances are, we are not among them.
It is because of our partisan minds that we read books we expect to agree with. That is why we spend more time with people like ourselves than with people with different politics. Once we have taken a position it becomes very difficult to change. We become full-time lawyers, looking for the evidence that supports us and ignoring the rest.
Prof. Haidt writes that whenever people have the slightest interest in an outcome, they can be counted on to “reason” it out to their own advantage—and to believe they have been perfectly objective. He says you get truth only when “a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out.”
This is why people are so good at finding holes in other people’s arguments but cannot see the flaws in their own. Brain scan studies find that when we are presented with evidence that contradicts something we strongly believe, we do not activate the parts of the brain involved in calm reasoning. Instead, emotion-related areas light up—the parts of the brain involved in negative emotions and responses to punishment. The brain comforts itself by activating reward circuitry. As Prof. Haidt explains:
[P]artisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.
This is why arguments are so unproductive. Moral reasoning is like a dog’s tail: “You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.” If your arguments ever convince anyone, it is only after you have taken the trouble fully to understand what he feels and thinks: “It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode.”
Most of the time, says Prof. Haidt, “if you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants,” and you don’t do that with reason. You do it by showing yourself to be a warm, attractive person. When you draw someone in emotionally, his elephant begins to lean your way, and the rider starts paying attention to what you say. This is how many people become dissidents on race. Someone they like or respect turns out to be a dissident, and they open their minds to his ideas.
Very occasionally someone reasons through a question and arrives at a conclusion against his initial intuitions, but this is rare. Prof. Haidt notes that art can also change minds: “Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning, especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie, or news story.”
The foundations of morality
But what makes elephants go their different ways? Why do moralities differ? Prof. Haidt argues that we have an instinct for rules and rule-making, but environment points us in specific directions: “We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.”
Some societies are more group-oriented than others. When you ask people to write 20 sentences that begin with “I am . . . ,” Westerners write about their inner states: “I am conscientious,” “interested in jazz,” etc. Asians are more likely to write that they are a father, a member of the soccer team, or an employee of Hitachi.
Morality in the contemporary West—at least among educated people—tends to be centered on individuals: Anything that does not hurt someone else is OK. Everything else, whether it is what side of the plate the fork goes on or how married women should dress, is arbitrary convention. Prof. Haidt points out that in many non-Western societies, what we would call conventions are strong taboos, invested with heavy moral meaning. In those societies, it is wrong to break taboos, even if breaking them hurts no one.
People who think of humans as autonomous atoms, and who believe morality can be reduced to the rule of avoiding harm are what Prof. Haidt calls WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). Other people have moral codes that are not based on universal rules but on duties and virtues. Groups, relationships, institutions, and traditions are more important than individuals, and anything that gives priority to the individual is dangerous. Prof. Haidt has found that you do not have to leave the West to find this kind of morality; less educated Westerners are more likely to think that certain things—homosexuality, incest, blasphemy, drug-taking, miscegenation, and prostitution, for example—are inherently bad whether they hurt anyone or not.
WEIRD people think they are above taboos, but they deceive themselves. Prof. Haidt came up with imaginary scenarios and asked American college students whether they are wrong—and why. In one story, the family dog is run over by a car and killed. The family takes the carcass home, cooks it, and eats it. The students had a strong sense that that is bad, but they didn’t like to think they were reacting to mere taboo. They tried to invent victims to justify their revulsion: The children could get sick from eating dog meat, for example.
In another scenario, a woman finds an old American flag in her house, cuts it into rags, and cleans her toilet with it. Even WEIRD people don’t like the idea of this, but they refuse to think it is intrinsically bad. Prof. Haidt’s college-student subjects wanted victims, so they were likely to say that someone might see the soiled flag and be offended, or that the woman herself would feel guilty later. Prof. Haidt writes that this groping for victims shows that “moral reasoning was often the servant of moral emotions.”
Prof. Haidt and others have looked for what appear to be the different emotional areas on which morality is based. He calls these “foundations,” and has found five (see the graph below). “Care” is the emotion that the helpless evoke; children, for example, must be looked after. “Fairness” requires that people not be cheated or exploited, and “Loyalty” recognizes that certain groups deserve allegiance. “Authority” is the sense that groups need rules and leaders that should be respected. “Sanctity” is the intuition that some things, such as God, flag, or chastity, are intrinsically sacred. What is most interesting about these foundations is how easily they distinguish liberals from conservatives.
The graph above, which runs from “very liberal” to “very conservative,” shows how important the different foundations are to different kinds of people. Liberals are obsessed with fairness and caring, in the sense of looking after the weak, defective, and victims of oppression. They don’t care much about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Conservatives, on the other hand, base their morality on all five foundations.
Prof. Haidt recognizes that liberals are fetishistic about “oppression:”
If you grow up in a WEIRD society, you . . . can detect oppression and inequality even where the apparent victims see nothing wrong. . . . For American liberals since the 1960s, I believe that the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression. Anyone who blames such victims for their own problems or who displays or merely excuses prejudice against socialized victim groups can expect a vehement tribal response.
Prof. Haidt also notes that conservatives and liberals interpret “fairness” differently: “On the left, fairness implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.” Liberals worry that homosexuals can’t marry; conservatives resent welfare cheats.
For many liberals, equal opportunity is not enough; they want equal results. That is not possible in a capitalist society, so a deep hankering for equality is inherently socialist. This is why rural and working-class whites vote Republican. Liberals think Republicans have somehow duped blue-collar whites into voting against their own interests, but people who get their hands dirty for a living are offended by the liberal assault on merit, and they hate freeloaders.
Prof. Haidt and his colleagues have set up a website, YourMorals.org, where they get people to fill in questionnaires about their moral foundations, and have discovered something else: Conservatives understand the morals of liberals, but liberals do not understand those of conservatives. When conservatives are asked to answer questionnaires as if they were liberals, they generally get the motives right. When liberals pretend to be conservatives, they attribute incorrect, evil motives. This is not surprising; liberals think conservatives are not just wrong; they are moral inferiors.
Prof. Haidt and other researchers have found other differences. Liberals are reported to be more open to new things—people, food, music, etc.—while conservatives prefer the tried and true. Liberal professors give a narrower range of grades whereas conservative professors accept inequality, and give high grades to good students and flunk the worst. Liberals want dogs that are gentle and caring while conservatives want dogs that are loyal and obedient.
Prof. Haidt points out something else: the liberal foundations of morality put the individual before the group. Conservatives care about individuals, too, but they also value the authority, loyalty, and sense of sanctity that groups require. Despite Prof. Haidt’s instinctive liberalism, years of research have led him to see the importance of these group-oriented moral foundations. He certainly risks becoming anathema in his own circles by asking, “Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?”
Prof. Haidt is also aware of studies that have found that conservatism and liberalism are heritable: About half the variation in this trait is heritable in men and somewhat less in women.
The importance of groups
Conservatives have a broader set of moral foundation because they recognize that humans are not atoms. For many people, their greatest satisfactions come from losing their identity and cooperating full tilt with the team, platoon, congregation, or cast of a musical. Altruism, devotion, and heroism cannot even exist in the absence of groups.
Prof. Haidt believes that group-level selection has had an undeserved bad name for the last several decades, and that humans really did evolve in ways that selected for tribal altruism. Groups in which members were willing to sacrifice outcompeted other groups. Prof. Haidt therefore argues that we have evolved both to be selfish and deceitful—which we are most of the time—but that under the right circumstances we can devote ourselves wholeheartedly to others, and that this is what makes us so different from all other mammals.
It is the ability to communicate and share intentions that makes us unique. Although chimps are our closest relatives, they are incapable of even the simplest kinds of cooperation. One chimp never holds down a springy branch while another picks off the fruit. Once we became able to cooperate—and Prof. Haidt thinks that happened 600 to 700 thousand years ago—it became much easier to get food, rear children, and raid other tribes.
As cooperation became the norm, rules had to be laid down, and rule-breakers had to be punished. The most basic rule is loyalty, and that is why people hate traitors more than they hate avowed enemies. Men are more tribal and group-oriented than women, who tend to be more loyal to two-person groups.
Prof. Haidt notes that the key to making any group work better is to “increase similarity, not diversity,” because people trust people who are like themselves. He says Orthodox Jews can run diamond markets efficiently and without elaborate security because they trust each other—because they are so similar. He adds that for any group, singing songs and marching together makes people feel more similar and this increases trust. He then says the one genuinely stupid (or perhaps just cravenly tactical) thing in the whole book: “There is nothing special about race. You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependence.” The Army claims to do this, but this is a transparently false claim.
All societies have to balance the interests of the group and the individual, and WEIRD people put the individual first. This is very recent and far from universal—Prof. Haidt wonders if it may not be a reaction to the excesses of communism and fascism—and he realizes that it is risky to break down groups. When people really are unconnected individuals, cooperation fades.
Groups necessarily exclude outsiders, and it is the rare American academic who is willing to write kindly about any exclusive undertaking. Prof. Haidt concedes that groups can hurt each other—sometimes they exterminate each other—but argues that they do more good than harm: “[I]ntergroup competition increases love of the in-group far more than it increases dislike of the out-group.”
Prof. Haidt realizes that an essential group dynamic is the conviction that members of other groups are not quite right—wrong, misguided, or somehow defective—but insists that “we need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups.” Then, whether he knows it or not, he says something dangerous: “Might the world be a better place if we could greatly increase the care people get within their existing groups and nations while slightly decreasing the care they get from strangers in other groups and nations?”
This is obviously true. If American blacks would marry each other instead of mugging and killing each other, it would do infinitely more good than handouts from white people. If Haitians could work together they would not need foreign aid. Unfortunately, stating the obvious is called “blaming the victim” (and may also be asking the impossible), and it is the very opposite of the current orthodoxy that requires rich white people at least to pretend to care deeply about distant people who are utterly unlike themselves.
Prof. Haidt makes another bold foray into heterodoxy in recognizing the importance of religion in holding societies together. He thinks religion arose as a mechanism to set the rules for a smooth-running moral community and to bind people to its values. If people believe in omniscient gods they are less likely to cheat when no one is looking, and a common set of rules creates trust—what psychologists call “social capital.” This is the key to getting large numbers of people to cooperate with others who are not immediate kin. Prof. Haidt quotes David Wilson, a biologist at Binghamton University: “Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.”
The recent evolution of our species took place within a thick matrix of morality, much of it religious. We worked, lived, traded, and mated in accordance with this moral matrix, even though we had to sacrifice “personal growth,” and other such self-centered fads. Rituals and sacred practices encourage people to sacrifice and to feel they are in the presence of something profound.
Prof. Haidt notes that many utopian communes were started in the 19th century, but it was the ones run on explicitly religious lines that survived best. Communes with religions that demanded the most sacrifice lasted longest. When sacrifice did not have a religious justification, commune members wanted to know what was in it for them.
Prof. Haidt reports that religious people give more to charity than non-religious people, although much of their giving goes to the religious group. By “religious,” however, he does not mean depth of conviction but depth of commitment, how enmeshed people are in their congregations. It is belonging, more than believing, that builds up social capital. People who are religious in this way also do more volunteer work, are better neighbors and citizens, and contribute proportionately more to non-religious charities, such as medical research foundations. “Religion in the United States,” writes Prof. Haidt, “nowadays generates such vast surpluses of social capital that much of it spills over and benefits outsiders.”
This is a remarkable statement for an academic. On most campuses, serious Christians are just one step up from “racists” (Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims are exempt because they are usually not white), but Prof. Haidt does not to hesitate to draw the logical conclusion. Now, for the first time in history, we have societies that are, for all practical purposes, atheist. Prof. Haidt warns that “they are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).”
Prof. Haidt writes that the left makes a great mistake in overlooking the importance of religion and of other group-derived sources of loyalty and morality:
Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense.
Prof. Haidt does not fail to note that the threat of moral entropy is especially intense in diverse societies. He goes on to issue a few valuable warnings to the left:
“If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.” If “you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire . . . .” “Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity,” the moral foundations the left ignores, “have a crucial role to play in a good society.”
The left has learned nothing from the grisly failure of communism, and continues to destroy moral capital by pushing “diversity,” feminism, atheism, equal outcomes, hedonism, and homosexuality, not only in the West but in societies that are still attached to tradition.
Ultimately, argues Prof. Haidt, moral systems are anything that helps people trust each other and work together. These systems are valuable even if they make no sense to outsiders. They are not rules about “justice” or “rights;” they may not be sets of rules at all. They are relationships, practices, traditions, expectations, and rituals that have grown up over time and in which people find the place that suits them. They are not mere social conventions that can be swept aside like old rubbish. Individuals do not have the capacity, all by themselves, to puzzle out consistent patterns of good behavior.
Nor does the same moral matrix work everywhere. “Beware of anyone,” writes Prof. Haidt, “who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places.” That, of course, is precisely the kind of system we are left with in a “multi-cultural,” “diverse” society that is determined to overthrow every ancient or particularist norm.
What this means for us
Prof. Haidt writes that it is only people in WEIRD societies (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) who have rule-based moralities and who value individuals over groups. They are also the only people who have devalued the racial or national group to the point where they talk cheerfully about dispossession. No one else spouts nonsense about the wonders of diversity.
But not all Western people have been denatured. Less-educated and poorer whites, and those living in Eastern Europe are less likely to have a WEIRD morality and less likely to have lost racial or ethnic consciousness. There is probably a strong relationship between living in a rich, industrialized country, and putting the individual over the group, since there has to be a lot of wealth for each nuclear family and for many single adults to have their own homes. Voting rather than clan-based power struggles also devalues the group. Significantly, though, these things have not destroyed group consciousness in rich Eastern countries such as Japan and Korea. It may be that anything that increases an awareness of the importance of groups increase awareness of the importance of race.
Prof. Haidt wrote this book in part to understand why well-meaning people cannot agree, and why they disagree so vehemently. He concludes that self-righteousness and the denigration of others is part of the way morality works, but that if we understand this it may make it easier for us to tolerate disagreement. He argues that both liberals and conservatives (would he stretch that to include “racists”?) are convinced they are trying to do the right thing, but their very conviction prevents them from recognizing their opponents’ good will.
This is surely true. Racially conscious whites are exquisitely aware of how liberals misattribute our motives and distort our positions. And yet, if they listen carefully to how their comrades or conventional conservatives talk about liberals, they will hear similar distortions.
A great many people are misguided, but very, very few are evil. By their lights, they are doing what is right. In our fight for survival, I’m not sure what good it does to realize that those who are even unintentionally destroying us are convinced they have worthy motives, but it is so. “We often have the urge to attribute ulterior motives to our opponents,” notes Prof. Haidt. “This is usually an error.” It would be useful if this book made liberals stop and consider how recklessly they attribute malevolence to their opponents.
Prof. Haidt is also unquestionably right when he says that moral arguments rarely change people’s minds. The whole purpose of American Renaissance is to make moral arguments and to present the facts on which these arguments are based. To us, what we say is factually irrefutable and profoundly moral, but liberals are deaf to our arguments and blind to our facts. That is the way the moral mind works.
But to the extent arguments do work, they have to reach what Prof. Haidt calls the elephant, the emotions. That is why racially conscious whites must avoid the slightest hint of anger or mean-spiritedness. This is almost impossible when you are fighting for your life, but even people who are leaning our way and who need only a gentle push towards racial consciousness will be pushed the other way by bitterness, sarcasm, or rudeness. That may amuse the comrades, but our purpose is not to amuse the comrades. It is to reach enough whites to build the movement that will be required if we are to survive.
As Prof. Haidt notes, many liberals have a queer notion of “fairness” that requires not just equal opportunity but equal outcomes. My guess is that to the extent our arguments make any sense to them at all, they must be based on something not too far removed from equal outcomes: Is it right for whites to be reduced to a minority while everyone else’s numbers grow? Is it right for whites to give up their homelands while other groups retain theirs? Is it right to require whites to sacrifice their interests—to deny they even have interests—while other groups promote theirs? At some muted, barely conscious level, appeals to reciprocity may get through to liberals.
Our task is particularly difficult because conventional thinking is now entrenched against us. Prof. Haidt writes that “the most effective way to design an ethical society is to make it so that everyone’s reputation is always on the line, so that bad behavior will have bad consequences.” This is undoubtedly true. The fatal flaw in our societies is that only “bad behavior” can ensure our survival.
As Prof. Haidt notes above, for liberals, “the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression.” He is right—though by any historical standard, this is a peculiar value to elevate to top rank. Spouting nonsense about “diversity” is a ticket to respectability while telling the truth can cost you a job. At the same time, most people are conformists and cowards, and are experts at convincing themselves they are neither.
Genuine risk, combined with our species’ talent for self deception, makes dissent even more difficult and all the more necessary.